Chapter III
Postcrisis Victim Assistance

A Summary of Victims' Needs After the Immediate Crisis Is Met

As Oklahoma City responded to victims during this postcrisis phase following the immediate crisis, the following victims' needs were identified:

  • Mental health services to ease the transition for those involved with the criminal event when the immediate crisis ended and they returned to "normal" work and family conditions.

  • Recognition by employers and service providers of the traumatic impact on first responders and others working with victims and efforts to provide opportunities for debriefing, counseling, and other assistance to help them cope.

  • Streamlining service requests and benefit claims so that the process of and documentation for accessing services and benefits are simpler for victims and enable agencies to cope with the increased demands of responding to a terrorist crime.

  • The ability to increase or supplement the number of victim assistance staff in agencies faced with responding to mass casualties.

  • Experienced staff aware of the unique needs of terrorism victims.

  • Access to an experienced prosecutor who is sensitive to victim-witness issues and provides victims with information about the status of the case and the legal issues.

  • A resource plan developed by OVC and other U.S. Department of Justice components that provides guidance in managing personnel resources for future disasters.

  • Information sharing and identification of victims to enable prompt extension of legal rights and services to victims and notification about the status of the investigation.

Ongoing Victim Needs and Vicarious Victimization

ictim services needed to be adjusted and expanded to help victims and families after the immediate crisis as they began to stabilize their lives and cope with the impact of the event. Victims and survivors had to deal with a wide range of emotional, psychological, physical, legal, and financial consequences. For example, custody decisions and legal processes were necessary for children who were left without a parent or both parents as a result of the bombing. As time passed, victims and families experienced new issues and challenges. In addition, it became evident that victims were not limited to the injured and the families of and others close to those killed in the bombing. Playing a role in responding to the bombing had a traumatic impact upon the men and women who were involved in the emergency response, such as rescue workers who participated in the recovery of victims and bodies, and those who provided care to the victims in the immediate aftermath and in the months and years following the bombing. Significant levels of secondary traumatic stress were experienced by a wide range of professionals and were exacerbated in many cases by the cumulative effect of exposure to other traumatic events.

Quote from Linda Wagner, Project HeartlandThe U.S. Attorney's Office and other agencies involved with the victims faced the emotional hardship of working with anguished family members, ensuring orphaned children were appropriately placed, and accompanying the Medical Examiner to report often gruesome findings to families. This situation was compounded by personal losses within the offices themselves. Within the U.S. Attorney's Office, a husband and a grandchild were killed in the bombing. Staff members in many offices continued to put in a full day's work when friends remained among the missing. Throughout Oklahoma City, wrenching decisions faced survivors, family members, friends, and fellow employees as multiple funerals took place simultaneously. Difficult decisions about which service to attend added guilt to grief. One employee who lost most of the agents in his office attended 30 funerals. Caregiving professionals and victim advocates, while skilled in dealing with victims' severe emotional distress, were not prepared for the scope and intensity of the traumatic reactions experienced in the weeks, months, and years after the bombing. Mental health support services were provided through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and Project Heartland.

Employee Assistance Program

Counseling and debriefing opportunities were available to federal employees through their respective Employee Assistance Programs.4 Many EAP staff returned to Oklahoma City several times. They conducted a training session for office management, to include the U.S. Attorney, on How To Recognize and Refer the Troubled Employee. EAP also conducted several general training sessions for the office on grief, loss, and trauma. Finally, EAP contracted with an eminent trauma psychologist who went to Oklahoma on several occasions to meet with interested employees. Initially, many employees did not use these resources at the time they were offered.5 In addition, no consistent link was established with local mental health professionals, such as Project Heartland staff, who were also working with federal workers. Many new federal managers were assigned to Oklahoma City as a result of the bombing. These managers were not always sensitive to the needs of their fragile and traumatized work force. Employee needs were not addressed as effectively as they could have been. An ongoing liaison between the various federal personnel offices, EAPs, and Project Heartland might have been helpful in meeting employee needs in the aftermath of the bombing.6 Within the U.S. Attorney's Office, some staff members later requested debriefings, noting that other "trauma veterans" such as rescue workers, police, firefighters, and treatment providers were offered or required to participate in debriefing sessions on a weekly basis.

Project Heartland

Created by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Project Heartland was the immediate mental health response to the bombing. FEMA provided initial funding for "crisis counseling, crisis intervention, support groups, outreach, consultation, and education to individuals who were affected by emotional or physical proximity to the bombing," and on May 15, 1995, Project Heartland opened.7 Because Project Heartland was the first community mental health response to a large-scale terrorist event in the United States, there was no previous experience to guide and establish the appropriate services for terrorist-caused psychological trauma. Project Heartland found that traditional crisis counseling techniques were not sufficient, and new approaches were developed to reach disaster survivors. From 5 original staff members, Project Heartland grew to 65 employees providing a comprehensive array of clinical, educational, and outreach services. FEMA supported Project Heartland as the longest Regular Services project it ever funded-funding was extended three times and ended on February 28, 1998 (Center for Mental Health Services, ND). FEMA awarded $4,092,909 to Oklahoma Regular Services.

On March 11, 1997, Project Heartland received notification from OVC that $234,930 had been awarded to fund crisis-counseling activities at the Safe Havens during the trials in Oklahoma City and at the trials in Denver, Colorado. Since FEMA guidelines do not allow funding of long-term mental health services outside of the federally declared disaster area, OVC funded the necessary mental health services during the trials. The Safe Havens served as places of respite for the victims' family members and survivors attending the trial proceedings in Denver or the closed-circuit television (CCTV) broadcasts of the trials in Oklahoma City. On February 28, 1998, OVC extended the grant and awarded an additional $264,000. OVC's grants to Project Heartland allowed services to continue for the many survivors, family members, other individuals affected, and an increasing number of rescue workers and rescue worker family members seeking help with problems stemming from the bombing.8 Among the most innovative services provided by Project Heartland were the OVC-funded activities related to the trials—availability of crisis counseling at Safe Havens during the trials in Denver and CCTV broadcasts in Oklahoma City (American Psychological Association, July 1997). (See further description of mental health services under chapter IV, "The Criminal Pretrial and Trial Phases.")

Between June 1, 1995, and February 28, 1998, Project Heartland reported providing 8,869 clients with counseling, support group, or crisis intervention services. Approximately 186,000 contacts were made, which included reaching out to a broad spectrum of minority and ethnic populations (Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, May 31, 1998). Outreach efforts included educational materials and information about services, debriefing sessions for workplace groups, and educational seminars on such topics as grief or traumatic stress. Services were provided free of charge at the Project Heartland Center, which housed a core group of clinicians and was open from 8:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., with evening and weekend appointments available on request. After hours, calls to the Center were transferred to the ODMHSAS crisis hotline, enabling clients to have 24-hour access to services.

Streamlining Procedures To File for Claim Benefits

Federal and state agencies made special efforts to streamline procedures for obtaining benefits and other assistance for victims. Agencies such as the state's crime victim compensation program, administered by the Oklahoma District Attorney's Council, assisted victims with crime-related expenses. This program made special efforts to simplify the compensation application and award process by waiving the usual law enforcement verification requirements and by dedicating one staff member to exclusively process all claims. Special attention was given to compensating lost wages for the victim and loss of support for the victim's family. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) administers the Public Safety Officers' Benefit program, which provides aid to survivors of slain and injured federal and state safety officers. In response to the Oklahoma City bombing, BJA not only streamlined its application procedure but also sent staff to Oklahoma to meet with surviving family members and assist them in applying for benefits. These are only two examples of special efforts taken to provide easy access to public benefits for victims of this terrorist act. Recognizing the horrific trauma experienced by the bombing victims, other special efforts were also undertaken by agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Social Security Administration.

U.S. Attorney's Office Response

This phase of the Oklahoma City bombing response focused on identifying and locating victims, assessing their needs, and providing the services needed to help them cope after the immediate crisis. Based on the federal definition of "victim,"9 victims encompassed a wide range of ages and situations.10 A critical task for the U.S. Attorney's Office involved identifying the victim population and developing a plan for providing appropriate assistance. While the definition of a federal crime victim includes anyone who suffers direct physical, emotional, or financial harm, there is a potentially wider range of individuals who suffered psychological harm. The Oklahoma City bombing victims directly affected by the event included the injured and killed and their families as well as employees of agencies in the Murrah Building. Beyond this core group of victims are other victims who suffered: rescue workers, police officers, and other responders to the scene; coworkers; people who worked in nearby office buildings; taxi and bus drivers who were in the area when the bombing occurred; and many others who were exposed to the event and to the traumatic aftereffects. Over time, investigators, prosecutors, victim services personnel, and others who worked closely with the details of the criminal case or with the surviving victims and victim families also became significantly affected. While core services should be provided to the federally defined victims, the Oklahoma City experience has shown that many other victims are in need of service, and more limited assistance could be made available to them.

Quote from Linda Wagner, Project HeartlandResponding to the magnitude of the Oklahoma City bombing case and the complex difficulties faced by its victims, the U.S. Attorney's Office met victims' needs by exceeding the requirements of federal law and the 1995 U.S. Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance (AG Guidelines). Operating under the AG Guidelines, the U.S. Attorney's Office identified victims and created a database of victim contact information. Some agencies refused to supply contact information for clients (victims), citing organizational policies of nondisclosure. Underlying most agencies' unwillingness to share client (victim) information was the fear that the identifying information might be used by criminal justice agencies for purposes beyond victim notification. The U.S. Attorney's Office had to rely on obituaries in the local newspapers and information from FEMA and other sources to identify victims and survivors, a process that the staff found to be a frustrating and unnecessary obstacle in implementing victim services. (See Privacy Act discussion under chapter VI, "Legal Issues Pertaining to Victims of Terrorism.") The U.S. Attorney's Office provided victims' rights and services through its Victim-Witness Assistance Unit and through the appointment of an Attorney Liaison.

Identification and Notification of Victims

Beyond the need to identify who the deceased victims were for the sake of their families, there also was the need to identify surviving victims and family members of the deceased to provide them with information and services. This need made it essential for agencies to exchange information about their clients, otherwise some victims would receive duplicated services and others would received none at all. The International Business Machine (IBM) Corporation donated electronic equipment, software, and training to create and manage a database of services provided to individual victims. The victim database eventually included approximately 3,000 family members and survivors that victim-witness coordinators and others involved with distributing victim services could use and update. When this new computer system was installed, agencies belonging to the Resource Coordination Committee entered information into the system regarding types and amount of services provided to individual victims. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality concerns, many victim-serving agencies did not enter into the system information about the names of their clients (victims), the amount of assistance, or the specific services delivered.

The Victim-Witness Assistance Unit also established a toll-free telephone information line for victims to obtain assistance and initiate regular group meetings with survivors and family members. This toll-free telephone line alleviated the need for staff to make hundreds of calls to victims to provide trial-related and other information and gave victims the freedom to obtain information at times that were appropriate and convenient for them.

Victim-Witness Assistance Unit

Going beyond the requirements of federal laws, the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit addressed immediate needs for food and shelter, organized large-scale resource coalitions, and engaged in personal troubleshooting for individual victims. It also gathered federal job vacancy announcements for federal employees, helped create a "job fair" for nonfederal employees, and worked with small federal agencies to arrange extra administrative leave and waive administrative barriers for a donated leave program. In compliance with federal law and U.S. Department of Justice policy, the U.S. Attorney's Office kept victims informed about the progress of the criminal case and available services with frequent case status letters. (See chapter VI, "Legal Issues Pertaining to Victims of Terrorists.")

Within the first few weeks, the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit held group or individual meetings to explain victims' rights and determine the availability of resources with the following: Social Security Administration staff, the Western District Court Clerk's Office, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development staff, displaced residents of a nearby apartment building damaged by the bombing, the FBI chaplain, Oklahoma Community Foundation, State Victims' Compensation Program, American Red Cross, and Project Heartland.

Quote from K. Lynn Anderson, Assistant U.S. AttorneyAs the number of victims and the volume of work increased, an immediate need developed for additional victim-witness assistance staff skilled in managing victim data; handling the emotional, resource, and support needs of victims and families; training other professionals to serve victims; and organizing community resources while still handling other existing case responsibilities of that office. The Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA) immediately moved to supplement the resources of the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit by obtaining permission from the U.S. Attorneys' Offices in Kansas and in the Northern and Eastern Districts of Oklahoma to detail their victim-witness coordinators temporarily to the Western District office.11 EOUSA then provided financial assistance to pay for the travel and lodging of additional staff members detailed to Oklahoma City. Initially, all victim-witness coordinators worked together to contact victims and assess needs. Later, those from other offices were able to rotate their assistance to the Western District of Oklahoma office-working in shifts to keep up with their own caseloads. For each coordinator, the Oklahoma City bombing was an additional responsibility rather than a replacement of existing responsibilities.

Attorney Liaison

On May 30, 1995, the U.S. Attorney's Office appointed a special Attorney Liaison for victims.12 This Attorney Liaison would also serve as a member of the prosecution team for the bombing trials.

The Attorney Liaison assisted the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit in removing bureaucratic roadblocks to help victims receive benefits. Examples of practical assistance included assisting victims with obtaining official forms and enlisting the aid of the Oklahoma Bar Association to locate Texas attorneys who would provide pro bono services for victims and their families. Once the trials began, the Attorney Liaison also became a credible and informative link between those working within the criminal justice process and the victims, families, and survivors.

Previous Contents Next

Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond October 2000